Friday, June 30, 2006

Bromley and crime

I didn’t make it to Bromley and while doubtless a couple of visits would have eaten a little into the Tories’ precarious majority I refuse to feel guilty about it. After the local elections in Watford, followed immediately by a council by-election, I needed to restore some order to the other bits of my life and just had to sit this one out.

While it was clearly a very good result, I share some of James Graham's reservations about what I understand of the party’s campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy at all for the Tories, since the tactics they complain of are ones that they are quite happy to use themselves.

But I do get irritated by Lib Dems scaremongering about crime, especially as at national level we are very critical of this sort of thing when it comes from Labour and the Tories. I despair at the way party campaigners sometimes don’t realise how such things actually undermine the values we are supposedly fighting for.

Just to be clear, according to our constitution preamble, Lib Dems don’t want people to be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’. Saying that people are afraid to go out at night without pointing out that such fears are usually unjustified entirely contradicts this principle.

There are very few areas where it really is unsafe to go out at night because the risk of being attacked is unacceptably high. Telling the vulnerable that they really ought to stay in because the streets aren’t safe is encouraging a form of voluntary enslavement.

More than that, it creates a vicious circle where people drive rather than walk because they feel safer in their car, which becomes a kind of armoured personnel carrier. If there were more people out and about on foot in the evenings, this would create a positive feeling of safety in numbers.

In Watford we have gone out of our way to campaign against unnecessary fear of crime, to reassure people that it is safe to go out at night and to explain that crime levels are actually lower than people often imagine. More than that we have taken the other parties to task for implying that nowhere is safe unless it has CCTV and round-the-clock police presence.

There is a real danger that those involved in the thick of an election campaign are carried along by the thrill of the chase and fail to spot how short-term tactics undermine the cause that we are supposedly fighting for. After the Tower Hamlets controversy of 10 years or so ago, I am sure that the by-election team would be very sensitive to avoid any hint of racism in our campaigns. But they need to be more aware of the other ways in which we can end up pandering to illiberal sentiments if we are not careful.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Local candidate set to win two-horse race (or the myth of Liberal dirty tricks)

The combination of Watford Liberal Democrats’ excellent victory in a council by-election last week and Iain Dale's ongoing criticism of Lib Dem campaign techniques prompts me to muse on the morality of election leaflets.

I have been writing Focus leaflets and the like for 20 years’ now, with some success and the inevitable accusations of dirty tricks from opponents of various stripes. It is noticeable that such charges have been levelled against us in Watford are usually very generalised, as if the mere fact of campaigning for a Lib Dem victory is itself a dirty trick. But there is precious little of what I have written and published down the years that I couldn’t justify as factually true and/or fair comment.

For what it’s worth I have two key rules:

1. Don’t write anything that I know to be untrue
2. Don’t write anything that undermines Liberal Democrat principles and values

For present purposes I’ll just comment on two key criticisms made against Lib Dems: regarding localness of candidates and bar charts on leaflets.

Over the years all four parties in Watford (and no doubt everywhere else) have had a mixture of candidates who live in their wards and ones who don’t. All four have used the ‘our candidate lives in the ward’ line at time, especially if they can draw a favourable contrast with their opponents. All four will also play down the importance of localness if their candidate does not live in the ward. The unwritten rule is surely that we all play up our candidate’s strengths and our opponents’ weaknesses. If there was a party that either only ever stood candidates who were ‘local’ or who never made an issue of ‘localness’ they might be able to climb the moral high ground. As it is, we are all pretty much on the same moral plane.

But I notice that the Conservatives in particular get all sanctimonious about this, being quite happy to criticise opponents for where they live and then complaining about Lib Dem dirty tricks if we use the same tactic.

The same is true of tactical voting arguments. Because Lib Dems have to work harder to establish our electoral credibility, we are great users of bar charts, showing us as serious contenders in ‘two-horse races’. But in fact no candidate with sense is ever going to come out and say ‘Actually I haven’t got a hope so you might as well back one of my opponents.’ In the recent Mayoral election in Watford, the Conservatives quoted national opinion polls to show us as in third place and out of the running (even though we had won last time). In a sense, fair enough. Had they tried to pass off the national poll as last time’s mayoral result that would have been dishonest. The electorate had enough sense to see that national opinion polls were not directly relevant to the situation in Watford and voted Lib Dem anyway. But I suspect that if the roles had been reversed, the Conservatives would have complained of dishonest Lib Dems trying to mislead the electorate.

In the end, all parties use remarkably similar techniques and tricks to win elections. There is no charge that is levelled at the Lib Dems that could not equally be made against one of the other parties.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Davey done good

After a longer-than-expected silence, I'll dip my toe gently back in the water by saying I thought Edward Davey did a good job on the Today programme this morning setting out the Liberal Democrats' new tax proposals.

As is often the case I agree with the posts by both Jonathan Calder and James Graham on this same subject, which I suppose is no surprise.

I only hope that the likes of James and Jonathan will state their views loudly and clearly over the next few months, because I fear that everyone from Lord Greaves to Liberator will step up to denounce the new policy as perfidious right-wingery, driven by what they see as the crypto-Thatcherite outlook of David Laws and Vincent Cable.

There are some Liberal Democrats who have slipped into a comfort zone of believing that radical Liberalism must be defined by support for higher taxation, higher public spending and as little role for the private sector in public services as possible. Clearly it's not big or clever to denounce such attitudes as unreconstructed 1970s social democracy, but I don't think such a description is unfair.

It is important that 'thinking radicals' within the party make their voices heard, so that this does not simply become stereotyped as a left vs right or, worse, social vs economic liberal debate.

For me it is good news that we are not making lazy assumptions that higher government spending automatically means better public services. It is also right that we should focus our policies on addressing distinctively liberal concerns such as the green agenda. It shows the aprty having a bit of intellectual confidence.

However, I share James Graham's concern that this policy sits ill with our commitment to a local income tax to replace council tax. I voted against the council tax policy when it was last debated by conference, although it hardly required a huge amount of soul searching to fall in behind it at the last general election. But it seems to me reasonable that there should be some form of property taxation, that this too has environmental benefits if it discourages such things as under-occupation of property and that we should be trying to spread the load of taxation, rather than concentrating more of it on income. But a lot of people within the party, particularly within local government, are very attached to the LIT policy. It will be a hard policy to ditch, even if ditching it is the right thing to do.

A special award for absurd hyperbole should go to Iain Dale for his description of the new Lib Dem policy as:

the most left wing tax proposals since Labour's 1983 "longest suicide note in history" manifesto.